What are exams for? Are they fit for purpose? KS4

To be honest I am unclear what GCSEs are supposed to be for. What does it mean if someone gets a C in History? Does in mean they were in the top x% of their peers? Does it mean they have certain skills? Knowledge? I can probably assume they can read and write but beyond that what does it tell me about what they can I can’t do? I have no idea.

Ask any teacher that question about a subject that isn’t their own. I couldn’t even get a sensible answer to that question of out one of the examiners when I went to INSET about the new exams a while back. Isn’t that a bit of a problem?

I teach Maths. That is why I am mostly ranting about Maths. I think the way Maths is examined at GCSE level is pretty terrible at the moment in my opinion. It fails on almost every count.

Supposedly a C in Maths GCSE means someone is numerate. It doesn’t. When I look at the pupils over the last couple of years who have a C many of them have been well-drilled enough for them to appear numerate for a couple of hours on a couple of days in June. Ask them to reproduce that level of numeracy in September and many of them can’t. A C in Maths in no way means that a pupil is numerate. Ask an employer if a C grade in Maths means someone is numerate…

Conversely a D in Maths GCSE does not in any way mean that a pupil is not numerate.

Given that the entry criteria for A level in many institutions is a B one might make the error of thinking that a B in Mathematics shows that a student is prepared for further study of the subject. Sadly this is not the case and many students who attempt A level Maths with a B in GCSE do not get the grades they hope for (or indeed a grade at all). Most pupils who begin A level with a B and a reasonably high proportion of those who start A level with an A need support through year 12 as they do not have the required knowledge, skills and speed of calculation or algebraic manipulation to be successful. Yes they might be able to factorise or solve simultaneous equations correctly eventually most of the time but is that good enough?

I’m not even convinced that GCSE Maths ranks pupils in terms of mathematical ability that well. In our school the GCSE grades are as much a reflection of the amount of “intervention” a student has had and their teachers ability to get them to work as they are a reflection of the students talent or ability. Last year I taught a reasonably bright student who was a good all-rounder (good at English, Science, History, P.E. and D.T) who worked extremely hard in Year 11 and got an A in Maths despite starting year 7 on level 3 and year 10 on level 5 and year 11 on an E grade. I would not say he was good at Maths. I would say that he ended year 11 extremely well-drilled in how to pass Maths GCSE exams. I would not have said that he was particularly good at Maths, merely good at Maths GCSE papers. He has found Year 12 extremely tough in Maths because he doesn’t have a particularly good understanding of Maths.

I think someone has to be good at maths and/or hard working to get an A*. If I didn’t have the list in front of me it would be hard to tell which of my pupils got an A*, which an A and which a B. The results of the A level baseline test which contained purely the  assumed knowledge for A level from GCSE had little correlation with GCSE results.

The assumption that someone with a higher GCSE grade in Maths is more numerate or better at Maths than someone with a lower grade is flawed because Maths GCSE papers are not good tests of numeracy or particularly good tests of Mathematical ability.

We have pupils who follow this trajectory:

  • Year 7- Level 4
  • Year 8- Level 4
  • Year 9- Level 4
  • Year 10- F
  • Intervention
  • Year 11 -C

and pupils that follow this trajectory:

  • Year 7 -Level 4
  • Year 8 -Level 5
  • Year 9 – Level 6
  • Year 10 – D
  • Year 11 – C

Are the pupils of the same ability? I would say not. One C reflects mathematical ability, the other reflects a huge amount of time invested by the school in “”intervention” training them to pass the maths exam. Who knows what grade the second student might get with the same investment?

The focus on the C/D borderline and the amount of time, after school classes and interventions that go into the borderline pupils skews the results and prevents them from being an accurate representation of the abilities of the cohort. In my experience pupils that have already got a C and pupils the school are confident will get the C get far less teacher time and effort put into them than the C/D borderline. Pupils that are deemed to have no chance of a C get almost nothing. This means their grades are likely to increase by less than pupils getting lots of interventions but does it mean that they are less good at Maths? I don’t think so.

In my top set Year 10 I have a few pupils who are working at a C grade. They have been since the end of year 8. Pupils of similar ability already have A and A* through early entry. Nobody hassles me about them. My year 9 class is going to become the C/D borderline and I regularly have to explain what I am doing about pupils who are getting a 5c when they should be getting a 5a. I would say the underachieving year 10 pupils are doing much worse than the year 9s. Some of my bottom set year 11 are 2 grades below their target  too. Apart from the ones who got a U in the sitting earlier this year nobody really bothers too much about their under achievement either. Some of those pupils aren’t less able than those getting intervention. They’ve just been written off as not worthy of intervention. There will be a massive gap in their grades though which will be assumed to mean a massive gap in ability. A flawed assumption in my opinion.

As I said earlier I don’t know a huge amount about other subjects beyond talking to colleagues:

  • English department- Under intense scrutiny due to 5A*-C including English and Maths measure. Results skewed by interventions and controlled assessments. Unhappy with exams and exam board.
  • Science department- results skewed by controlled assessments. I remind my friends in the science department to put the PUPIL name on the controlled assessments and not their own. (joking of course) Department is split between those happy with the exam because the pass rate makes them look good and those that would like an exam with more science in it that pupils can;t just rote learn their way through.
  • Languages department- Seem to do controlled assessments properly. Exams are quite hard for our EAL students. Results are good due to HOD ruling staff and pupils with an iron fist. Seem reasonably happy with exams.
  • DT department- Staff work extremely hard on coursework. Pupils don’t. Bright students get A grades or better. Most of the rest get a C. They don’t get very many bright students unfortunately as bright students tend to get pushed into other subjects.
  • Art department- I don’t really understand how this GCSE works but I do know the department spend an awful lot of time trying to get pupils to do their sketchbooks. changed exam board fairly recently if I remember rightly and seem happy with the exam.

I’d be interested to hear from teachers of other subjects about their exams and whether they are similarly flawed and of course whether people agree with the flaws in the Maths exam I have talked about.


3 thoughts on “What are exams for? Are they fit for purpose? KS4

  1. Pingback: How would I change the exam system KS1-5 | mylifeasacynicalteacher

  2. Pingback: Drivers of “dumbing down” not addressed | mylifeasacynicalteacher

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